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UN Explores Native American Rights In US


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, as a child, did you ever build a rocket? Well, how about one that can take two raw eggs 800 feet up and bring them back safely again? That's exactly what students from Memphis' Wooddale High School managed to do, and now they're competing in a national competition this weekend. We'll hear their inspiring story in just a few minutes.

But, first, we want to turn to a new report that turns an international spotlight on how America's indigenous people live. Native Americans, Hawaiians and Alaskan natives are the subject of a new United Nations Human Rights Commission report that examines, for the first time, the living conditions of native people against the standard set by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That declaration establishes minimum, basic rights for indigenous people globally. The U.S. signed on to this declaration in 2010.

S. James Anaya is the UN special rapporteur on indigenous peoples. He is an American and a professor of law with a background in tribal law, and he led this inquiry, which just concluded. It is, as we said, the first of its kind to report on the conditions of indigenous people in the U.S.

And Professor S. James Anaya joins us now in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much for coming in.

S. JAMES ANAYA: Thank you. It's great to be here with you.

MARTIN: I should mention that you are a professor of law in the United States. You're from New Mexico, so you certainly have your own personal experience with these issues. But what motivated this report by the United Nations at this time? Was this the first opportunity after the United States signed onto this universal declaration?

ANAYA: Yeah. That's right. I, in my capacity as special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, have been interested in promoting the application and implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on a worldwide basis. And so when the U.S. expressed its support, it was natural for me to say, well, what kind of conversation can we have about what the U.S. is doing, in practical terms, to put to practice the declaration?

MARTIN: You know, one could see both sides of this. On the one hand, because you are an American and because the United States is such an important and influential body, and the United Nations is based there, you can see why some people around the world would say, OK. What's going on in your own house? But you can also see where a lot of Americans would see this type of investigation as something that would be more of a priority in less-developed or less-democratic countries where there is less transparency.

And so I think the question might be: What would you say to Americans who would say, why is this needed here?

ANAYA: Well, I have been looking at the rights of indigenous peoples in other countries and less-developed countries. I've been to countries throughout Latin America and Africa, Asia, and I think it's natural for me, in my capacity as UN special rapporteur, to look in my own backyard, as it were.

MARTIN: Obviously, the report is comprehensive, but could you just give us a few of your key findings?

ANAYA: The basic finding is that there needs to still be some reconciliation between indigenous peoples and the United States government. Indigenous peoples suffer a range of social ills, high rates of poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence, low educational attainment. And these are a product of what's been referred to as intergenerational trauma spanning decades, really centuries, since the founding of the country and before.

So the historical oppression that indigenous peoples have suffered, the taking of their lands, the undermining of their cultures, the taking of their children to boarding schools in order to wean them away from indigenous culture, these have had profound effects on indigenous peoples. There's yet to be a real reckoning of that history and reconciliation.

MARTIN: You've done a lot of work with indigenous people and tribal law throughout your career. What got you interested in this particular area?

ANAYA: Well, I am of indigenous ancestry myself, Apache and Purepecha. So, of course, I've sort of grown up with concern about indigenous peoples. And when I studied law, I became interested in devoting my career to this issue and was fortunate in being able to land a job right out of law school where I was working, representing Indian tribes.

MARTIN: Have you observed, over the course of time that you've been thinking about these issues, both personally and professionally, have you noticed any change in kind of the core issues that you talked about?

ANAYA: First of all, indigenous peoples have managed to take more and more control over their lives, but what characterizes that effort is always the constant barriers that they have to overcome in terms of various structural arrangements with states and federal government.

Another thing that I think has changed is that there's more awareness among tribes of their connections with the outside world with indigenous peoples. And so we see indigenous peoples from the United States participating in various international forums, or indigenous peoples from other countries are present and talking about the same issues and developing common strategies across borders.

MARTIN: So you say there's more transnational...

ANAYA: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...relationships than...

ANAYA: That's right.

MARTIN: ...before. That's interesting. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with S. James Anaya. He is the United Nations special rapporteur on indigenous peoples. He has led the first-of-its-kind inquiry into the treatment of indigenous people in the United States.

I noticed in your report that you said that you were unable to meet with members of Congress in connection with your inquiry. You mean no member of Congress was willing to meet with you in your official capacity?

ANAYA: Well, we asked to meet with members of Congress, and just didn't get a positive response.

MARTIN: But you met with people at other levels of government, people from the State Department...

ANAYA: That's right. I met with every agency and department with which I asked to meet in the administration, I was able to meet with. So I did get great cooperation from the administration.

MARTIN: In your report, you do weigh in on one kind of legislative issue that is before the Congress, which is the question of the reauthorizations of the Violence Against Women Act. There's been extensive reporting on the very high level of violence, including sexual violence, being faced by women on reservations...

ANAYA: Right.

MARTIN: ...often, the perpetrators being people who are not on the reservation.

ANAYA: Oh, this is - yeah.

MARTIN: And I just wanted to ask why you feel that this would help?

ANAYA: The statistics show that 80-plus percent of those who commit violence against women are non-indigenous and, under current law, the tribal courts can't prosecute non-indigenous perpetrators of certain crimes. And so this is a real need, and I think anybody can understand that they would want the courts in the community in which they live to have responsibility and the capability of adjudicating these kinds of crimes, or alleged crimes.

And I think it, first of all, it doesn't serve women who are the victims or potential victims of this crime to limit the tribal courts in this regard, because it only serves to perpetuate this gap in prosecution. And, secondly, it is discriminatory against tribal courts and the people that run these courts.

MARTIN: I know that this report - as you and I are speaking now - has just been completed. I wanted to ask what kind of reception it's receiving so far.

ANAYA: Well, the report itself will come out in a matter of months, but I have, as you mentioned, issued a preliminary statement, and that will be the basis for a full report that will be issued.

MARTIN: Well, without being prejudicial, though, I mean, you've been in this area for a while. Is there anything over the course of this inquiry that stood out for you?

ANAYA: A couple of things, maybe. One is the - I had been to Alaska, and the indigenous people there have seen, within just a couple of generations, their access to subsistence resources diminish. Just two generations ago, they were, as they say, free to hunt, fish according to the ways of their ancestors. And now they're highly restricted in the way they can do that. They're subject to state regulation on that, which in many cases, limits - in a practical sense - their ability to live as they did. And so that is causing a lot of turmoil in indigenous societies and cultures.

What I saw there and what was highlighted in other parts of the country is this interconnection between people's physical, economic and social well-being and the continuity of their cultures that every human being aspires to, having that grounding in a cultural identity in those familiar ways.

And there is another dimension that needs to be highlighted, and that is the dimension of religion. Indigenous peoples' religious belief systems throughout the country are connected with specific places that have meaning in various ways and whose preservation is essential to the continuity of their religious practices and their belief systems and their cultures.

And so there are various locations around the country that touch upon the lives of virtually every indigenous group or community and that these people are - the indigenous peoples are striving to maintain a connection to, but that for various reasons, their access to these places is limited, or these places themselves are, in their eyes, being desecrated by various activities occurring on these places. So that's a very critical importance, and that was one of the things that was highlighted to me and impressed upon me.

Of course I have a knowledge about these issues, but to hear from people throughout the country on a consistent basis that this is a matter of vital importance, this cultural connection of lands resources and the spiritual religious dimension of that connection, was quite striking for me.

MARTIN: How will you know if you - or that you have succeeded in this post?

ANAYA: Well, from my standpoint, success is having tried, done everything I can to try to give voice to indigenous peoples, to ensure that their voice is being heard. And as long as we can continue to see steps in the right direction, I think we're moving along the path towards success. It's a process. It's a long-term one. And it's those steps that I'm looking for.

MARTIN: S. James Anaya is the United Nations special rapporteur on indigenous peoples. His mission is the first of its kind to report on the rights of indigenous people in the United States, and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Professor Anaya, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ANAYA: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.